We must be prepared to take control of our future

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Source: © Neil Webb / Debut Art Ltd

Scientific, social and technological trends are rapidly changing the way we live and work. They not only affect our subject – the nature and practice of chemistry – but also the roles of chemists themselves. Yet most of us don’t have space and time in our day jobs to consider these issues and how they might change our future.

I was given exactly that opportunity last year, when I was asked to lead the Future of the Chemical Sciences initiative on behalf of the Royal Society of Chemistry. The objective was to assess how the chemical sciences may evolve over the next 10 to 20 years and the possible consequences for academia, industry and society.

For example, how might the identity of chemistry change? Some of the most innovative science takes place at the interfaces between disciplines. Look at recent chemistry Nobel prize winners – most could just easily fit into the categories of physics, or physiology or medicine. Chemistry is relevant to so many disciplines that it could find itself absorbed into molecular science and engineering departments. Could we be facing a future in which chemistry departments have disappeared altogether?

If public funding does not support blue-skies research, how do we fund it?

Funding is another critical issue. Global R&D expenditure has increased, but it has done so at a snail’s pace. And as a percentage of GDP, the funding allocated to basic research has steadily decreased. Governments know that research is important, but state funding is increasingly tied to demonstrating measurable benefits to society. If public funding does not support the blue-skies research that is likely to produce the next major advances, how will we fund it?

Then there are technological developments that open up new possibilities for chemistry. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in the US recently developed a ‘map’ to predict the safety of untested chemicals, using data collected by the European Chemicals Agency, and synthesis designed by machines is now a reality. Will chemists of the future need to be more expert with software than glassware?

Answering these questions is difficult to say the least. Our world is characterised by turbulence, with increasing uncertainty in the global economy and in relations between individuals, governments and countries. Add to that the unpredictable way that science and technology evolve and any attempt to extrapolate from the present to a probable future is likely to produce embarrassingly poor results.

So instead, our approach is to use scenario planning: considering multiple different possibilities to explore how emerging trends may evolve and interact with each other. In a nutshell: it is better to prepare for the future than to predict.

Over the course of a year, we worked with leaders from around the world and across industry, academia and the public sector to explore the different ways that the chemical sciences might evolve.

Our approach was based on an iterative method of query, consultation, analysis, synthesis and validation. From this, we identified themes that are likely to have an influence on the chemical sciences, such as openness, funding, globalisation, social trends and technology.

To give just one example, under the theme of openness, the impact of an open research environment will disrupt our field both in technological and political terms. It is likely to lead to new ways of working, but its consequences are not fully understood yet – what impact will this have on where science is done, how knowledge is shared, and how trust is assigned?

We also looked at how different themes might interact. The trend towards increased connectivity in the world of science, driven by openness and real-time collaboration, is set in the context of a wider world that oscillates between globalisation and separation. A world that is also faced with major demographic changes, where an increasingly affluent and outspoken (and not necessarily healthy) ageing population will make up a significant proportion of the workforce. This affects both the mobility and nature of talent: how will nations compete to attract talent? And with an ageing population, how will talent be defined?

We want our findings to pose questions for the community and challenge current thinking

We also identified a range of weak signals – drivers of change that might not be strongly influential today, but could become important in the future. Case studies such as personalised healthcare, DIY micro-engineering, distributed energy grids, batteries of the future and the extreme longevity movement.

From all this work, we developed four scenarios (see box below). The scenarios are not exhaustive – they do not represent every possibility, nor are they mutually exclusive. And most importantly, they are not predictions. Instead, we want our findings to pose questions for the community regarding the nature of leadership, communications, careers and incentives in the chemical sciences.

You may not agree on the relative probability of the scenarios, but our intention is to challenge current thinking. That said, they are not merely an academic exercise – we can and should use them to help take proactive decisions today.

At the Royal Society of Chemistry we are using the scenarios to sense check our current strategy and as a frame to consider and respond to the changing environment. In this enterprise, we are leading the way – no similar organisation is as engaged as we are.

There is no doubt that chemistry will be essential in the years to come, but a key question that comes up in every scenario is: ‘will chemistry lead or follow?’ The current perception is that chemistry is in danger of becoming a ‘follower’. Tackling societal issues requires international and interdisciplinary approaches and a shift to problem-driven research. It will be crucial to ensure that chemistry’s role in those partnerships is understood and appreciated by funders, policy makers and society. Not because we must defend chemistry, but because we cannot risk failing to realise its potential.

I believe that chemistry has a key role in addressing many of the challenges facing our world, improving everyday lives today and in the future. But there is no room for complacency. 

The scenarios

The full report and details of the scenarios can be found at: rsc.li/futurechem

Chemistry saves the world

This is a world that has been shocked by the challenges facing society: from climate change, water shortages and natural resource scarcity, to providing healthcare for an ageing population. This scenario explores what would happen if chemists solve some of the world’s greatest challenges.

Global collaborations of governments, academia and industry respond to the challenges facing society and chemistry takes the lead in solving societal issues. People live longer and an elderly, wealthy populace recognises the benefits of science and is willing to engage with and support the sciences. Chemists’ work is focused on solving problems, making discoveries more incremental. The demand for chemistry skills increases and it has a greater presence in education and the public awareness. A new qualification, recognising impact and interdisciplinary working is prestigious and sought after. A flourishing ecosystem of start-ups exists linked to innovation in industry.

Push-button chemistry

This is a world in which developments in technology and communications have changed the way organisations are structured and collaborate. Traditional business models have broken down and there is growing demand for personalised goods and services. A more entrepreneurial culture of chemistry has developed. This scenario explores a world where the chemical sciences are automated and decentralised.

Chemistry is accessible to everyone, in their homes. Easy access to computer modelling tools enables a DIY chemistry culture and home experimentation is as commonplace as the personal computer. An entrepreneurial culture exists with a large online community synthesising and sharing products. Chemistry goes underground as members of the public are able to customise their own chemicals in former commercial sectors. An unregulated black market of home-cooked chemistry emerges. Chemistry becomes a commodity.

A world without chemists

This is a world where chemistry has separated entirely into subdisciplines. In the past, the chemical sciences existed both as a collection of sub-disciplines and as a community of chemists. Without the chemical sciences as a distinct discipline and university subject, the pipeline of future chemists starts to dry up. This scenario explores a world without chemists.

What was once chemistry’s strength as the ‘central science’ becomes its weakness as chemistry loses its identity, its sub-divisions merging with and being absorbed by other disciplines. Other subjects take the lead on discoveries and while many of them make use of chemistry, fundamental chemistry research only exists within the framework of other sciences. Public awareness and understanding of chemistry is poor and the demand for chemistry-specific training and skills diminishes. Universities no longer offer specific chemistry courses and within two generations the skills required to teach fundamental chemistry are lost.

Free market chemistry

This is a world that it is poorer, with increasing income inequality and torn by national crisis and needs. It has evolved from a long period of reduced growth in both the global economy and the level of international economic integration. National spending cuts have reduced government spending on scientific research in many of the world’s biggest economies. This scenario explores a future without public funding.

The pressures of meeting the demands of a growing population and societal challenges push impoverished governments to limit spending and focus on internal, national issues. State funding for research is reduced and becomes heavily focused on outcomes that tackle those issues. A market for private funding grows to fill the funding gap, in which consumers of science become the funders; industry invests for profit and private institutes for philanthropy. Chemists market their skills to secure funding, and academic institutions focus solely on teaching to supply the market demand for chemistry skills. The original meaning of university becomes redundant.